The Final Conflict Page 2

Oh, wait. You think the family pet of all battles will be Apple vs. Microsoft? No, that's just a friendly competition, a little rivalry between pals. Whenever Steve Jobs sees Bill Gates, I'm sure he gives him a playful noogie - you know, when they spot each other at the grocery store.

No, the competition between the iPod and Microsoft's new player will be a spat compared with the real battle. This will be a launch-all-nukes-now kind of battle. It will be more thrilling than Snakes on a Plane. It will be weirder than watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon. It will be the ultimate battle for cool.

Looked at another way, it will be a battle between old and new. More specifically, traditional consumer-electronics companies will throw the armies of their old empire against the "upstart" computer companies. In the old empire, if it involved electricity and entertainment, the CE companies owned it. Whether the products were in your home, your car, or your shirt pocket, those companies made the sound and picture. Then along came videogames, PCs, the Internet, and cellphones, and the CE companies lost their grip.

This is the battle that will decide the future of consumer electronics: portable players vs. Blu-ray or HD DVD. The Sonys and the Toshibas of the world, essentially having surrendered the portable music playback business to Apple, are praying they can hang onto the home video playback business. They're betting on Blu-ray and HD DVD, hoping those technologies will be sexy enough to persuade you to buy new players and TVs. But if the products land with the same cowpie plop as the most recent formats launched by the traditionalists - DVD-Audio and SACD - then everyone fastforwards to music- and video-downloading via computers. Blu-ray and HD DVD are the traditionalists' last chances to hang onto the old empire. If those formats fail, then the balance of power will tilt irrevocably to the computer companies. It'll be their turn to rule the world.

And now you'll have to excuse me. I'm going to duck and cover.

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